The last few years have marked the rise of a radically inspiring and unbridled voice in UK’s music scene: the soulful, dreamy pop of British-Pakistani musician Leo Kalyan. With a bold and distinct musical aesthetic informed by his intersectional identities as a queer, brown, Muslim man living in a changing world, Kalyan’s ethereal sounds reflect and challenge the sociopolitical invisibility he straddles everyday.
A singer, songwriter and producer who also designs his own album art, Kalyan topped Spotify’s global viral chart, was playlisted by BBC’s Radio 1 and has over a million plays on SoundCloud. A humble, sincere and warm person, Kalyan talked with Homegrown about the complicated realities that inform his art, the emotional value of his work and his inspiring journey into becoming the musician he is today.
“I think desi musicians living in the West inhabit an interesting space. We’re neither here nor there – so we can view each culture with some amount of objectivity,” Kalyan tells me frankly, relaying that a lot of his family was separated by Partition. Born in the UK, Kalyan was raised in and around London with strong South Asian influences that resonate deeply in his work. Having grown up listening to A.R. Rahman, Asha and Lata just as much as he did Sade, Massive Attack and Seal, Kalyan’s poetic work is grounded by a confluence of cross-cultural sounds, from Indian classical and Bollywood to R&B, electronica and trip pop.
“I was always trying to combine by Eastern and Western influences – it took a lot of listening and experimentation that eventually led me to find my sound, which I think of as a perfect crossroads in between all of those things that are a part of me,” Kalyan says when I ask him to describe his music. He fondly recounts trying to imitate Mariah Carey as a child, and eventually finding a guru to train as a singer after being told by a friend in school that he actually sang well.
“When you have a passion you can’t really put a finger on what exactly excites you. It’s the kind of feeling you get when your hair stands up on your hand – the melody and chords just fit together in a certain way, you get those goose bumps and it’s just the most exciting and powerful thing,” Kalyan gushes. “The magical thing about music is that it can really go beyond continents, beyond borders, language, religion… it connects to your soul, it goes to our core as human beings. Everyday I’m trying to recreate that feeling, live that sensation. It’s what drives me.”
It’s this passion that got him thinking long and hard about really using his music to address both his internal struggles and a wider attempt at shedding light on the invisibility of these identities. He came out as gay through his music video, “fucked up,” a beautiful, evocative song that came from a place of visible vulnerability and intimacy. “My identity is central to who I am. Sure, it can sometimes get stifling, but it’s so central to who I am that not addressing it would be an elephant in the room.”
Especially given that Muslims today are one of the most demonised groups in the world, being gay meant that Kalyan was demonised even by many Muslims – putting him in a complicated place that he was only able to express through his music.
“As a desi musician who is also gay I do think it’s important to use my platform to create visibility for people like me, people who have been ignored, invisible, made to feel like we really don’t exist,” Kalyan says softly. “One of my absolute idols, Nina Simone, once said that ‘it’s the duty of artists to reflect the times,’ and I think we ought to live by that,” he continues. “Not everything has to be packaged in a serious way; it can be poetic and lighthearted and romantic. Most artists stick to themes like love, heartbreak and sex – because they’re important and big parts of our lives, essential to every human – but there’s room to explore so much more,” he urges, challenging the preconceived notion that addressing heavy subjects is not profitable or commercial. He points to Michael Jackson using his music to talk about race in the 1980s, or Madonna singing about abortion, women’s rights and sexual liberation. “You can talk about what’s happening in the world and about love – it’s a balance, just like it is in life.”
Kalyan is excited about the future of music, both in India and in the UK. “In light of Section 377 being overturned, it’s a great time for queer musicians in India to talk about their experiences. These stories have never been put to music before and it’s an exciting and important moment,” Kalyan says confidently. “Similarly in the UK, where South Asians are the biggest ethnic community in the country yet their representation within the music industry is almost zero, there’s lot’s of barriers left to be broken, with desi voices really rising into the spotlight. I’m looking forward to it.”
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